It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when links to news articles were not the norm on Facebook. However, since Facebook began including links to news articles in its user feeds nearly a decade ago, the relationship between news publishers and social media has been ambivalent at best and — perhaps more often than not — strained.
While publishers appreciate the traffic and visibility that the distribution through social media sites can provide, they have often accused social media of “cannibalizing” their content. And sometimes, building a business model that relies too much on social media referral has proved disastrous. Facebook’s algorithm change in 2018 caused carnage among news sites that relied on its traffic, causing many publishers to ask, “Is it worth it?”
A lot has changed since then — including the rise of new platforms. So, what’s the current state of play and how can publishers reap the benefits of social media exposure while minimizing the downsides?
Convenience is paramount for news consumers
Social media continue to be an access point of growing importance for news consumers. The “Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022” found that, thanks to their ubiquity and convenience, at an aggregate level, social media preferences (28%) surged ahead of direct access (23%) as news consumers' path to online news content.
Geography plays a part in this: Reuters also found that: “Audiences in Nordic countries and the UK still have strong direct connections, while people in Japan and South Korea tend to access news via powerful aggregators and search engines – relying less on direct access.”
Location is not the only factor to take into consideration — age matters, too. For instance, “These changes are in large part driven by the emerging habits of a new generation of social natives as they come into adulthood,” according to Reuters. In the UK, the research found that millennials (ages 25–34) and those older than 35 have “only slightly changed preferences over time.” However, people in the 18–24 age group have become significantly less likely to use a news website or app. “This is another illustration that this youngest generation, which has grown up with social media, is not just different but is more different than the one that came before,” says Reuters.
It should come as no surprise that 40% of publishers surveyed for “Publishers & Social Media: 2021 Trends” identify growing their social media following as a top priority. This goal goes hand in hand with another; 63% of publishers said finding new audiences would be more important in 2021. For all its possible drawbacks, social media is a great place to get exposure to new audiences — and Facebook continues to be the dominant source of social referral traffic by a huge margin (90%). Having a social media strategy in place is a must for a news market driven largely by Facebook exposure.
Making the most of publishers’ social media presence
Following the notorious 2018 update, the Facebook algorithm favours personal posts over branded creatives, making it harder for news brands to get in front of followers. Balancing the demands of increasingly social media-driven news consumption with the need to drive site traffic and gain direct access to users is easier said than done. But with a well-thought-out strategy, it can be accomplished. Here are some useful tips to make the most out of social media.
Build a consistent brand
Social media success demands that brands take it seriously. It’s not enough to just have an intern post on Facebook a couple of times a week. Social channels are an extension of news brands, making it imperative that your social voice reflects your larger brand goals. Consider the following as you build your social brand:
- Formatting & style — Do not just wing it; ensure that your formatting is consistent and visually cohesive. This makes it easier for readers to identify a post from their favorite outlet. This is especially important on visual platforms like Instagram, so visual branding should be a key part of news brands’ strategies.
- A set posting schedule — How often you post on social media is almost as important as how often you post on your site. Keep it consistent to appease your audience and the algorithms.
- Communication protocols — Social media is an inherently two-way channel and your social manager is likely to encounter some comments or DMs that need addressing, so have a protocol in place to make this easier.
- Brand voice and identity — Creating a brand voice specifically for social media may be necessary, as these types of communications are less formal and the expectations of the audience may change from platform to platform. While a news brand may push straight news on Facebook or LinkedIn, a Twitter presence may need to be quippier. In contrast a TikTok presence will be totally personality- and video-driven.
Prioritize people over promotion
Social media is all about engagement, and the content publishers create for these channels must keep this in mind. Using social media to engage with fans, rather than just promote products to them, requires content creators to understand the individual platforms. What works on Facebook will not work on TikTok — and the users of each platform are looking for very different experiences. While Facebook users are often content to click a link or to like and share a post, TikTok demands publishers create bespoke video content that caters to the platform’s strengths (more on that later).
Know your audience
General news sites have very different news audiences than B2B trade magazines or even entertainment news sites — and it’s important to understand the audience in play to ensure success. In a world with tight newsroom budgets, putting resources into the social media channels where target audiences already are will make sure a marketing team is spending its time wisely. News organizations specializing in celebrity and entertainment news will want to concentrate on Facebook and Instagram, while B2B news outlets will likely focus on LinkedIn or Twitter. General news organizations may have to think more broadly, or do some research to find exactly where their users are most likely to interact with content.
Don’t be afraid to experiment
If finding new audiences — rather than existing users — is a priority, publishers should think outside of the box. TikTok may not seem like the first logical stop for hard news content, but the Washington Post has had great success distilling news stories down for young audiences through humorous TikToks.
With nearly a million and a half followers, the Post’s approach is helping one of the U.S.’s most recognizable newspaper brands find new audiences among the often digital-only Gen Z demographic. By choosing the right stories — those Gen Z is more likely to be interested in, such as climate change or human rights issues — and understanding the format, the newspaper has successfully built brand awareness and, hopefully, added to its future subscriber base.